With all due respect

AH, the Respect campaign. You remember the Respect campaign? The one launched with a huge fanfare on Sky Sports News the summer before last, as Eamonn Holmes spent a large chunk of the afternoon discussing footballer behaviour with John Terry. (John Terry! Whatever happened to him?)

Well, the Respect campaign was the centre of attention again last night as Leicester City faced Newcastle United. Or at least, it was supposed to be.

Actually, before I get on to that game, I’d like to chip in with my own two penn’orth about John Terry. There was a lunchtime debate on Radio Five Live’s Saturday sports show as to whether his alleged extra-marital activities made his position as England captain untenable. And in my view, it missed the point completely.

What was particularly alarming about this case was that Terry’s lawyers applied for a super-injunction to prevent the News of the World publishing their story about his private life – and initially, they got it. I cannot overstate the threat that these super-injunctions pose to freedom of speech in this country.

Before I explain why, a word about injunctions and super-injunctions. First of all, injunctions, courtesy of the Guardian’s James Robinson: “In their simplest form, they prevent news organisations from reporting what happens in court, usually on the basis that doing so could prejudice a trial.”

Fine. But the media do have a right to report that such an injunction has been granted. With super-injunctions, you can’t even do that.

And such injunctions have become an increasingly common method used by celebrities and large companies to prevent the media publishing damaging stories about them.

This disturbing tactic reached its nadir last October when the law firm Carter-Ruck sought to prevent the Guardian from reporting a question in Parliament about a super-injunction obtained by the oil firm Trafigura, which was alleged to have dumped toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

When this decision became public via Twitter, the outrage at this attack on the media’s constitutional right to report on Parliament – and the accompanying threat to democracy – was so great that Carter-Ruck dropped the injunction.

In overturning Terry’s super-injunction, Mr Justice Tugendhat questioned the reasons for the initial application.

“Freedom to live as one chooses is one of the most valuable freedoms, but so is the freedom to criticise,” said Justice Tugendhat.

Too right. There was no need for this super-injunction to be granted in the first place. If the allegations against Terry are untrue, he can sue for libel. If he were to do so and win, he would collect substantial damages and an apology from those who had made the allegations.

Terry’s lawyers made a direct attack on the right to freedom of speech in the UK, which is enshrined in the Human Rights Act. That, in my view, is far more offensive than anything he might have done in his private life. And that’s why I feel his position as England captain is untenable.

Some people may think that what I’ve just written is a load of old nonsense. (Because I guess eroding freedom of speech is OK if it stops anyone saying anything bad about your favourite team, eh? You’ll be trying to convince me next that UK libel law doesn’t apply to blogs or message boards.) Well, the great thing about freedom of speech is that if you think I’m talking utter crap, you have the right to say so publicly.

Anyway, back to the Respect campaign, and back to Leicester v Newcastle. I was rather cynical about the campaign’s launch in 2008, because I didn’t think it would stop players and managers slating referees when a controversial decision went against their team. And in that sense, I would suggest I was right.

But the FA say the campaign is working. There has been a marked improvement in refereeing recruitment numbers and general player behaviour, along with a reduction in the harassment of match officials and the number of bookings for dissent. So maybe, for all my cynicism, it is a move in the right direction.

The FA joined forces with Leicester City to promote last night’s game as the first-ever official Respect fixture. The players warmed up in T-shirts promoting the campaign, while fans in the Family Stand held up cards to spell out the word ‘Respect’ as the teams walked out.

Leicester captain Matt Oakley and Newcastle manager Chris Hughton both made pre-match comments outlining the importance of respecting officials.

All of this was done with good intentions. And then referee Andre Marriner sent off Leicester midfielder Richie Wellens for two bookings inside half-an-hour, and the whole thing started to unravel faster than a cheap scarf.

Wellens, I felt, was unlucky to go. Having been booked for clattering Alan Smith, he collected a second yellow for putting his hand on Wayne Routledge’s shoulder as he began a charge towards goal. Probably a foul, but was it really worth a booking?

Leicester’s fans didn’t think so. “You’re not fit to referee,” they chanted as the first half drew to a close, incensed at Wellens’ dismissal, and the fact that Newcastle right-back Ryan Taylor escaped a booking after a crude waist-high challenge on Martyn Waghorn.

Neither did Leicester’s Paul Gallagher, who went over to confront Marriner as the players walked off at half-time, and has to be persuaded to back off by a steward.

Manager Nigel Pearson, an honest man who conducts himself with great dignity, did his best to hold his tongue when asked about the red card after the 0-0 draw.

“I’ve not as yet seen the footage, so I’m not going to make any statement on that right now,” he said. “All I would say is that I think consistency of decision making is the key and I’m not sure we get that.”

Pearson, fully aware of the game’s importance to the Respect campaign, was being as diplomatic as he could be. Even so, there was a hint within his comments of a journey we’ve taken before when it comes to the campaign. When managers criticise referees, they usually make one of two points:

1) Referees lack consistency.
2) They don’t use common sense.

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realise that it’s impossible for referees to achieve both total consistency and common sense, because they’re mutually exclusive.

Consistency means applying the rules the same way every time, which doesn’t allow for common sense, which is subjective. What’s common sense to me may not necessarily by common sense to, say, Sarah Palin.

(It’s worth stating here that neither I nor Sarah Palin are qualified to referee a professional football game. Still, perhaps UEFA might give us a go in next season’s Europa League as an experiment.)

So there you have it. There will never be 100 per cent Respect for referees, because even if video technology comes in, they will still make decisions that frustrate players and managers. In the circumstances, perhaps the Respect campaign is doing as well as it can.

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